Select Page

It’s hard to know if your Christianity is syncretistic, especially if you grew up with that syncretism. It takes work to de-syncretize your faith. And we all have to do it to some extent.

From the beginning, God knew syncretism—that is, worshipping other gods in addition to the Lord or attempting to combine other religions with Christianity—would be an issue. In the Ten Commandments, he says, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:3-5a [NIV]). This prohibition is certainly against forsaking the Lord completely. But he also knew that some people would be tempted to think, “I’ll throw in some worship of these other gods on top of my worship of the Lord. It won’t do any harm.” Except, well, it would do harm. Affections would go out of whack, righteous behavior would be curtailed, identity would become confused, and worldview would become skewed. God was looking after his people when he made these commands.

Similarly, the New Testament writers played whack-a-mole against various false teachings. For instance, Paul seems to address an early form of Gnosticism in several parts of Colossians 2. Likewise, the apostle John condemns those who deny that Jesus came in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3).

It’s a little too easy to let unbiblical ideas share the driver’s seat. It’s even harder when you grew up with such a situation and you don’t realize it’s happening. But that’s what has happened with much of American evangelicalism. Specifically, we’ve let some Gnostic ideas sit in the driver’s seat and we don’t realize it.

Gnosticism argues that the material world is inherently evil and that only the spiritual world contains anything good. As Bible scholar and professor Craig Blomberg says,
Salvation for the Gnostic thus involved the attempt of the soul to escape the fetters of the body by recognizing and liberating the divine spark that dwells within every person…. The relevant knowledge usually involved understanding one’s divine origin, one’s current state of slavery, and the redemptive possibilities of the future. Once could then be said to have attained to the resurrection already in this life; all that remained was for one to die and be fully liberated from the material world. (Blomberg, chap.Religious Background)
Anyone associated with American evangelicalism would find this oddly familiar. That’s because it sounds an awful lot like American evangelical teaching. For many of our churches, this is quite close to the gospel. We are all sinners (“current state of slavery”), Jesus died for our sins (“redemptive possibilities of the future”), and whoever believes in him will go to heaven forever (“all that remained was for one to die and be fully liberated from the material world”). This is the extent of what we teach. Do we realize how Gnostic we are?

This anemic gospel has elements of the truth, but it is not the gospel. This is not what Christianity is about.

Many evangelicals don’t realize it, but the Incarnation shatters this quasi-Gnostic gospel. By taking on human flesh, God declared that it matters. Thomas Howard, in his book Evangelical is Not Enough, puts it brilliantly:
The Incarnation, then transfigures the whole fabric of life for us and delivers it back to us and us back to it in the seamlessness that we lost at our exile from Eden. Once again we may stand in our proper relation to things, as lords over them and not as their slaves. Once more we stand in our true Adam-like dignity because of the Second Adam and may begin to learn anew the solemn office for which we were created, namely, to bless God and to lead the whole Creation in that blessing. Our flesh, having been worn by the Most High Himself, is the most noble mantle of all. (Howard 33)
Christ came in human flesh, not to rescue us away from earth and up to heaven, but to restore us to our original, God-given purpose of ruling creation with him. He took on flesh to make us more fully human—to live out our true physical purpose in this world and in the world to come (the new creation, which will be physical). Yes, redemption from sins is a big part of that. But it is not the only reason he came or the only reason he died and rose again.

This syncretistic, quasi-Gnostic gospel has implications. Evangelicals largely feel we have a pass on earthly matters—although we’ve cherry-picked a few to “care” about. The only thing that really matters is souls and getting as many to heaven as possible. The spiritual life is good; the physical life is mostly bad and will burn up anyway. Thus, we don’t have an obligation to care about injustice (which explains the evangelical response that social justice work is just a distraction from the gospel). Even many of the churches that do some kind of “mission” work do it, not necessarily because they believe the physical world is important, but simply as an evangelistic tool (i.e., we’re being nice to you and Jesus is nice to you, so you should believe in him). Even many of the churches that encourage people to excel in their earthly endeavors do so out of the belief that if unbelievers see believers excel in their jobs, passions, etc., then unbelievers will want to know Jesus. Our quasi-Gnostic beliefs taint everything we do.

There’s a reason the Bible works so hard to combat syncretism—because it hurts ourselves and others. The Gnostic-like beliefs that have permeated American Christianity have done tremendous harm to countless people, inside and outside of the church. How much better would our communities and our country be if the church had worked to restore all things and rule creation well? How much more distress and suffering could’ve been alleviated? Ideas have consequences.

How do we reverse this? How do we establish a better paradigm for understanding the Bible’s grand narrative? The same way all ideas spread and catch on—we have to discuss it as much as possible. We especially need American Christian leaders to point out the syncretistic elements of our beliefs and steer us to a more biblical understanding. We also need to act on our beliefs—we need to show the world that the physical world is important. We need to work to restore the world, consider everything that God created sacred (instead of believing in a sacred/secular divide), and make our world look more like the coming new heavens and new earth.

It takes work to de-syncretize our faith. It takes work to renew our minds. It takes work to encourage others to do the same. But little steps make a big difference.

Blomberg, Craig. Jesus and the Gospels. 3rd ed., B&H Academic, 2022.
Howard, Thomas. Evangelical Is Not Enough. Ignatius Press, 1984.